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There was a white noise flooding my mind as the sled cut through the soft snow in the frigid Yukon territory of northwest Canada. In sight were pine trees perched along the sides of the frozen Takhini River. I placed my hands firmly on the sled’s handle, as if I was pushing a lawnmower, and my heel hovered over the foot brake. But there was no need to slow down now that we were out in the open, and the dogs raced ahead.
It may have been 2017, but in my mind, it was a couple hundred years ago, when this was the only way to travel long distances.
Before this, I had an apathetic attitude toward dogsledding. Though I have always had a great respect for the history and importance of it, the present-day appeal was lost on me. Part of that, I think, is due to always being a passenger in the experience as part of a large tour — sitting in a hard, uncomfortable sled, at eye and nose level with the backsides of the dogs.
Until now, that is: This time, I was in control of the sled as a musher. Standing tall behind the dog team, responsible for their well-being, I was in tune with why this traditional form of transportation is sacred to those in the north, and why just about everyone will tell you it runs in their blood.
And the Yukon certainly qualifies as “the north.” Temperatures were below zero for most of my stay in Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital city, which led to a frozen beard, cold fingers and frequent sips of whiskey. Dogsledding is a big part of the local culture; for starters, Whitehorse is the starting point of the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile dogsled race into Alaska. There’s also a racing dog kennel nearby, Muktuk Adventures, which offers tours as well as stays at its guest ranch/bed-and-breakfast. Here, interested folks like me can learn more about what it takes to raise dogs and live an old-school mushing lifestyle in the modern world.
Muktuk is an Inuktitut word that translates to “whale blubber.” Frank Turner, owner of Muktuk Adventures, used to feed this type of blubber to his very first team of race dogs — a throwback to traditional times when the Inuvik people would feed it to their sled dogs on long trips lasting days or even weeks in the wilderness. The kennel at Turner’s company currently houses more than 100 sled dogs, all of which were raised and trained in-house. Many of these dogs go on to be part of race teams in events such as the Yukon Quest and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
During the day, Muktuk Adventures offers an inside look into its operations via the Rookie for a Day program. It provides an abbreviated, hands-on introduction to how mushers and trainers care for, prep and run the dogs. Clients will get a glimpse of daily life for the dogs, then take the reins and feel what it’s like to be behind the “wheel” out in the wilderness — the part that mushers describe as nostalgic and addictive.
Those keen on an extended combination of adventure and culture should spend the night. Muktuk’s Main Lodge has four guestrooms with shared bathrooms, and there are two private cabins, one with running water and electricity, and the other without, so clients can make the experience as rustic or as comfortable as desired. The establishments sit adjacent to the river, and because of their remote location, there’s also the chance to see the northern lights.
Of course, overnight guests receive more time with the dogs than daytrippers. After my run, I hung around the kennel and interacted with the trainers, mushers and dogs to learn more. What is the reality of taking care of that many dogs? How much do they eat? What are the varying roles of the different dogs? What do they do when they’re not running?